The Intimacy of Book-Giving: Just Give Me Underwear

canstockphoto16137550It’s a phrase I’ve said repeatedly in my lifetime: “Give gifts that people want, not what you want them to have.” I received two books as gifts recently and had two entirely different reactions.

I unwrapped the first book and sat there stunned for just a moment. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind, including “You hate me, you really, really hate me.” I was struck how out of proportion my mental reaction was, but that is the nature of my relationship with books. They are such a part of who I am, as a reader, as a writer, as a human, that I can’t imagine anyone would think one book was as good as any other.

The book I received was an inspirational tome by the mother of a child who had died from a rare disease. I stared at the gift-giver as if she’d just given me something with “Oprah’s Book Club” stamped on the cover. There’s nothing in my personality that suggests I like Thomas Kinkade, Hallmark or Chicken Soup for the Soul. I don’t have tear-stained copies of the The Notebook or The Fault in Our Stars in my reading stacks. While I can feel deeply for a bereft mother, I do not read for sentimentality’s sake.

The gift-giver doesn’t really know me and certainly did not know that she just gave me the equivalent of a package of Granny Panties. Although they’re mighty comfy on occasion and make good cat barf rags at the end of their usefulness, I do not want to receive them from a relative stranger in a room full of people. This is the same person who gave me a Prince Charles’ tome on the future of mankind several years ago. A thong with pretty pictures.

I was writing to a friend this morning about book recommendations and it struck me how very personal it is and how reluctant I am sometimes to offer up ideas. There is a level of intimacy, because you know very well you are going to recommend something they may not like. And if they ever tell you that, it will hurt just a little. And part of you will wonder about the veracity of your friendship.

There were several friends of mine who raved about 50 Shades of Grey. I don’t know that I’ve ever looked at them the same way again. Yet sometimes when I read negative reviews of a book that I liked, I get enraged, as if someone had just insulted my mother. And you can often see in the comments that people have taken personal umbrage to the review, to the point of online wedgie-giving.

canstockphoto6437376This is part of the reason why I don’t write book reviews. The book that was poorly edited, full of sentimental manipulation, with characters I’d like drawn and quartered – that book touched someone’s heart, comforted them while they were going through emotional turmoil, allowed them to escape for a moment from the anxieties of their life. There were, for a few moments, no bills to be paid, no pictures to cut out faces from, no squalling child in need of something. Who knows what a book I loathed, meant to someone else?

From a literary standpoint, I don’t pretend to have high standards. I like a good story with complex characters and I don’t care if it’s Toni Morrison or Nicholas Sparks (uh, maybe not) as long as they write a world I can sink into with rhythm and language that keeps me there. But what draws me in might be something that reminds me of a comforting moment as a child or visually links me to a place where I felt happy. The character might remind me of a boy I was once madly in love with or someone who never got their comeuppance.

canstockphoto8858462What we read, what we love to read, what we want to read, is as complex and reflective of our humanity as what we like in music or fragrance. It’s incredibly personal and intimate. I have found that it is also a reflection of our relationships. The first book I received during the holidays was from someone for whom mutual dislike is discernible. The book felt like an act of contempt, although it was likely a thoughtless throwaway attempt at being generous.

The second book I received was from a friend over coffee. We’ve talked about books often, have known each other for several years and she’s in my ring of favorite people. She gave me a book that she had read and really enjoyed. It made her laugh. She knows my sense of humor and thought I would enjoy it as well. It was an entirely different experience, as intimate as a hug without having my space invaded or being imprinted with a scent.

Scanstockphoto20612705ometimes I think I’m a very hardhearted person, that I should be grateful that I’ve been given anything. I’ll smile and say thank you, even while wondering if Half Priced Books will give me any money for the book I’ve just had foisted on me. Giving a book to someone just because you know he or she reads books is akin to giving a knife from Target to a professional chef. Unless you’re already familiar with their kitchen, you are likely giving them something that they’ll re-gift in the coming year.

Socks. Just get them socks.

Right now I’m lost in pure entertainment, having tracked down used copies of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. I’m reading Stories to be Read with the Door Locked. When we’d visit my grandparents, I’d sneak off to the den and read everything on their bookshelves. They had all the Alfred Hitchcock dime store paperbacks. That’s also where I read the horrifying Helter Skelter (that’s a post for another day called Inappropriate Things I Read as a 10-Year-Old).

I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours…

Valentine’s Day – Is It Over Yet?

canstockphoto5757172If you’re a romantic, avert your eyes. Valentine’s Day and I are going to have words. And most of them won’t be very nice.

I can’t pinpoint the very moment I came to loathe this day, but I suspect it was Valentine’s Day 1984, place: high school.

The cheerleaders would sell carnations every year that would be delivered to the intended recipient on Valentine’s Day. In the cafeteria. In front of everybody. Red was for love, white was for like, yellow was for friendship. The mini-skirted popular cheerleaders would gallivant through the lunch room, their 5 gallon buckets of flowers in tow (all class, they were). Just for a second, a brief whisper in time, you’d think “Me! Me! Me!” As they passed me by, I’d think up some snarky comment to make my also-disappointed friends laugh. It was awful – that feeling that no one will ever love you. In high school, it feels like a statement on your person. And you believe in that moment, that you will feel that ache the rest of your life.

It didn’t get much better after that, spending many Valentine’s Days alone or with groups of single friends.  Instead of going out, I’d make a gigantic meal and we’d spend the evening playing poker or making fun of each others’ botched romantic exploits. I was content in the days before and in the days after, but that particular day made me feel bereft. Even during years when there was a boyfriend in the picture, he would have plans to shoot pool with his buddies once the flower/chocolate obligation had been met, calling me in drunken inspiration at 2am to profess whatever he wouldn’t remember in the morning.

I don’t inspire the kind of passion that invites serenades under my window or beds covered in rose petals. Mostly because I mock those kind of gestures the other 364 days of the year. It’s not my thing. Everything associated with commercialized romance is fairly unappealing to me in its own right: the color pink, hearts, jewelry, fat baby archers in diapers, coworkers who act surprised to receive bouquets, bouquets from the person you dumped last year. And I’ll tell you a little secret – I loathe cut roses. They remind me of funerals – the sweet, sickly scent of a funeral home or of someone getting bilked.

Each year, when I realize it’s within spitting distance, I start to feel a little resentful and surly. Do we have to go through this every year? My husband makes a gesture, but he knows me well enough to know that while I’ll thank him and appreciate a bouquet of spring flowers, I’m wishing it were the 15th. The pumped up faux sentiment and rituals remind me of the pressure of being a bride. I’m supposed to get all excited. My husband is supposed to march, lock step, into a Hallmark store and pay five dollars for a sentiment that we live every day. I mean, marriage is a big ass Valentine, isn’t it?

For many years, I tried to follow the rules. I bought my husband a card and a unique present that would never see the light of day again. No one needs or wants a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s compass. Yes, I’m weird, but my husband, a techie, is the hardest person on the planet to shop for. I think my gift to him is that I prefer to skip it all – the huge glittery cards, boxes of guessing chocolates (what the hell is inside this one – spackle?) and teddy bears. Ugh. When do grownups need teddy bears? Most of these bears are holding somebody’s heart in their hairy little paws as if they ravaged a campsite and victoriously snatched out a human heart. And then put graffiti on it for spite. Hug me, indeed.

My low tolerance for overt, commercialized romance is not to say that I don’t have any sentiment in that regard. I have spent Valentine’s Day with someone, just getting over someone, alone, with friends and now, with my husband. The best Valentine’s Days have occurred when I was comfortable with myself, allowing the day to be a mere blip on the radar and not a statement of my ability to love or be loved. And it turns out, now that I’m an adult, I can buy my favorite chocolate all year round. Now that is romantic.